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The Vulgar Spirit of Blogging : On Language, Culture, and Power in Persian Weblogestan (American Anthropologist, 2004)

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This article is an ethnographic study of Persian-language weblogs (blogs), focusing on a divisive argument among Iranian bloggers that came to be known as the “vulgarity debate.” Sparked by a controversial blogger who ridiculed assertions that Islam
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  Research Articles ALIREZA DOOSTDAR “The Vulgar Spirit of Blogging”: On Language,Culture, and Power in Persian Weblogestan ABSTRACT This article is an ethnographic study of Persian-language weblogs (blogs), focusing on a divisive argument among Iranianbloggers that came to be known as the “vulgarity debate.” Sparked by a controversial blogger who ridiculed assertions that Islam wascompatible with human rights, the debate revolved around the claim that blogging had a “vulgar spirit” that made it easy for everythingfrom standards of writing to principles of logical reasoning to be undermined. My study focuses primarily on the linguistic side of thecontroversy: I analyze blogging as an emergent speech genre and identify the structural features and social interactions that make thisgenre seem “vulgar.” I also examine the controversy as a confrontation between bloggers with unequal access to cultural capital anda struggle over “intellectualist” hegemony. In the conclusion, I use the construct of “deep play” to weave together multiple layers ofstructure, explanation, and meaning in the debate. [Keywords: Iran, weblogs, computer-mediated communication, speech genres, socialstatus] Blogging, due to its mundane nature, has the capacityto nurture the spirit of vulgarity. And what great painsintellectualshavetoendurewhentheyconsiderbloggingto be a serious matter but at the same time fear thisdestructive plague . . . Refusing to comply with the princi-ples of proper writing in the Persian language, includingcorrect spelling and orthography, is the simplest effectthat the blogging phenomenon, as a vulgar matter,can create in the cultural personality of a blogger. Theseverest effect of vulgarity is to recklessly make any kindof cultural, philosophical, religious or artistic claim.To express one’s own opinion in such a way that itslanguage and intonation is both personal and conveysemotion, in any field or discipline, is not deplorable,but rather the function of blogging. But to preten-tiously make claims about any topic is to be affectedby the vulgar spirit of blogging. It’s not one’s own faulteither;thevulgarenvironmenthasgraduallyleftitsmark.—Seyyed Reza Shokrollahi, Khaabgard  INTRODUCTION: THE VULGAR SPIRIT On October 26, 2003, Hossein Derakhshan, author of avastlypopularPersian-language weblog  (awebsiteconsistingof regularly updated writings arranged in reverse chrono-logical order, usually by a single author), wrote an entryin which he mocked assertions made a few days earlierby Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi that Is-lam and human rights were not contradictory (Derakhshan2003c). Derakhshan, or “Hoder” as he likes to be called,  A MERICAN  A NTHROPOLOGIST  , Vol. 106, Issue 4, pp. 651–662, ISSN 0002-7294, electronic ISSN 1548-1433. C  2004 by the American AnthropologicalAssociation. All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of CaliforniaPress’s Rights and Permissions website, at http://www.ucpress.edu/journals/rights.htm. charged that the “secular” Ebadi had turned into an aya-tollah after she won the celebrated peace prize, and thatthis was a major sign that the lawyer intended to enter Ira-nian politics and possibly run for the presidency in 2005.Hoder also deplored the “political” claim that Islam andhuman rights were compatible, and, citing a single versefrom the Qur’an instructing men how to deal with theirwives, he asserted that Islam was inherently at odds withthe most fundamental rights of human beings. He also cre-ated an opinion poll on his entry to ask his readers whatthey thought about Ebadi’s remarks.Hoder’s entry on his blog, Sardabir: Khodam (Editor:Myself), provoked a huge reaction in the Iranian blog-ging community, which the bloggers themselves usuallycall weblogestan. 1 Eighty-one comments, both supportiveand damning, appeared on his blog alone. Numerous oth-ers wrote their opinions on their own blogs, and some sent“trackback pings” to Hoder’s entry, informing him (and hisreaders) of their articles.A notable response to Hoder was an entry onOctober 30 by Seyyed Reza Shokrollahi, a journalist andliterary critic, on his blog Khaabgard  (Sleepwalker; seeFigure 1). Under the title Zende baad gand-e ebtezaal dar ve-blaagestaan! (Long live the stink of vulgarity in webloges-tan!), Shokrollahi lamented that Veblaag-nevisi ba’d az moftazah kardan-e khat vazabaan-e faarsi, tavaaneste har mozoo’e jeddi va  652 American Anthropologist • Vol. 106, No. 4 • December 2004 FIGURE 1. Screenshot of Khaabgard, Reza Shokrollahi’s weblog. andishe-varzaane raa niz be lajan-e bimaari-e ebtezaalbekeshad va mesl-e sarataan ham pishraft konad vanevisande va khaanande va hame raa be gand bekeshad.[Blogging,afterlayingwastetothePersianscriptandlan-guage,hasbeenabletodrageveryseriousandintellectualtopic into the scum of the disease of vulgarity, grow likea cancerous tumor, and trash the writer, the reader andeveryone else]. [Shokrollahi 2003b] He also remarked that the simplest form of  ebtezaal (vul-garity) in blogging was disregard for the spelling and or-thographic principles of the Persian language, and its mostsophisticated form was recklessness in making any kind of statement in one’s writing. In a follow-up entry, Shokrol-lahi wrote that “veblaag-nevisi ye joor neveshtane, va gha-lat naneveshtan, savaa-ye mazmoon va mohtava, avvalinqadam baraaye neveshtane [blogging is a kind of writing,andwritingcorrectly,regardlessofcontentandsubjectmat-ter, is the first step in writing]” (Shokrollahi 2003b). To-gether, these entries touched off the bahs-e ebtezaal (vul-garity debate); a cacophony of blog entries, online maga-zine articles, comments, responses, and counterresponsesthat continued for several weeks. Writings differed bothin their definition of vulgarity and in their focus on lan-guage or culture. 2 Although many bloggers sympathizedwith Shokrollahi’s concerns about vulgar linguistic and cul-tural practices, others charged that he wanted to stifle freespeech and compared him to government censors. In thedomain of language, the controversy surrounded both theneed to observe standard orthography and grammar, andthechoicetowriteinformalorcolloquialPersian.Some,in-cluding Shokrollahi, maintained that a set of orthographicstandardsmust beobservedeven whenwriting in a shekaste (broken) conversational style, whereas others counteredthat it was completely logical for one to write in exactlythe same way one thought, even if that meant disregardinglinguistic standards. A few bloggers on both sides of the de-bate challenged the notion that a single standard of writingexisted, or even that there was a common baseline amongthe different standards that one could adhere to.What follows is an ethnographic study of the vulgaritydebate, which spanned approximately two months, fromlate October to late December 2003. I first took notice of IranianblogsinFebruary2003,whenIstumbledonPersian-Blog.com, the first Iranian weblog hosting service offeringfree web space and blogging tools to thousands of Persianspeakers. In April, I decided to become a member of thecommunitymyselfbystartingtwoblogs:anEnglishoneen-titledPersianBloggerChronicles,andaPersianoneentitled  Parishaan Belaag  (disheveled blog) in which I wrote, along-side the conventional personal notes and political com-mentaries, my observations and analyses of conversationsamong bloggers and some of their emergent socioculturalpractices. I established relationships with other bloggers bywriting about them on my own blog or by visiting theirblogs and commenting on their entries. Throughout my re-search, I had many interesting conversations with Iranianbloggers that were conducted outside the blogging mediumitself,mostlythroughe-mailandinstantmessagingbutalsoover the telephone. Similar to Annette Markham in her re-search on text-based virtual reality (1998), I felt it necessaryto experience blogging firsthand and over an extended pe-riod of time to acquaint myself with the nuances of com-munication and social interaction among the communityof bloggers and to better equip myself for interpreting andmaking sense of what bloggers were doing and how theywere articulating their actions. This ethnography is, there-fore, as much informed (and constrained) by my own ex-periences as an amateur blogger trying to make inroads  Doostdar • “The Vulgar Spirit of Blogging” 653 into Weblogestan as it is by my observation and interroga-tion of other bloggers’ communicative practices and socialinteractions. 3 Thevulgaritydebatedrewmyattentionmorethaneverbefore to the complex linguistic practices of bloggers andtheir contending understandings of what these practicesmeant. My interest in this debate had a lot to do withShokrollahi’s description of blogging as having a “vulgarspirit.” I view this description as fitting very nicely with anotionofbloggingasaspeechgenre,inthesensedevelopedby Mikhail Bakhtin (1986). As an emergent genre, Persian-language blogging may be developing an outer orientationand an inner, thematic orientation that sets it apart fromother genres of speech, including the offline literary andjournalistic genres that Shokrollahi and some of his asso-ciates had mastered well ahead of settling in weblogestan. Iarguethatthe“intellectualist”frustrationwiththismediumreflects an uneasiness with the linguistic and cultural prac-tices that are becoming prevalent in tandem with the emer-genceofthesegenericorientations.Ialsoarguethatthevul-garity debate reflects a cultural and political clash betweena roshanfekr  (intellectual) class who consider themselves tohold a certain amount of authority in matters of languageand culture and a larger group of people who see bloggingasjusttheplacetobefreefromanykindoflinguisticorcul-tural authority and are fed up with what one blogger called“intellectualist pretense” (Dolatshahi 2003b). As I examinesome of the arguments in the vulgarity debate, I also referto specific examples in which bloggers metapragmaticallyindex themselves as linguistic and cultural rebels by beingdeliberately careless in their writing or by otherwise usinglanguage in unorthodox ways. ANTHROPOLOGY, TECHNICISM, AND “DEEP PLAY”IN CYBERSPACE There are at least two reasons why an ethnographic andanthropological perspective is well suited for studies of cy-berspace, including the one outlined in this article. First,there are a plethora of new and interesting social forma-tions whose emergent relationships, linguistic practices,power dynamics, and constructions of individual and col-lective identities need to be understood and could benefitimmensely from multilayered, multisited, cross-culturallycomparative ethnographic analyses grounded in social the-ory. Indeed, calls are increasingly being made for an ethno-graphic and anthropological approach to the study of computer-mediated communication and online commu-nities (DiMaggio et al. 2001; Escobar 1994; Fischer 2003;Hakken 1999; Kottak 1996; Miller and Slater 2000; Wilsonand Peterson 2002). 4 The second reason, closely related tothe first, is that too many scholarly investigations of on-line communities, thus far, have uncritically adopted theutopianordystopianassumptionsof“cybertalk”inthepop-ular imagination, leading to largely unsupportable claimsabout the revolutionary consequences of the Internet forsocial, cultural, and political processes (Hakken 1999; Wil-son and Peterson 2002). Empirical studies that do not takefor granted the technicist claims of an “Internet Revolu-tion,” that focus on the impacts of social and cultural pro-cesses on cyberspace as well as the more-often cited influ-ences of cyberspace on society and culture, and that viewthe technologies of the Internet and all that is containedwithin it as cultural products are much needed for gaininga more realistic and more nuanced understanding of onlinecommunities.My study of the vulgarity debate in weblogestan is mo-tivated by both of these arguments. Discourse on Iranianblogging is inundated with uncritical technicist assump-tions about the revolutionary impact of blogs on Iraniansociety, leading to numerous claims about the ways we-blogsarerupturingIran’ssocial,cultural,andpoliticalfabricby promoting such previously nonexistent things as “free-dom of expression” and unfettered relationships betweenyoung menandwomen(Delio 2003;Editorial 2003;Girvitz2002; Hermida 2002). These analyses have been, in myopinion, overly and naively enthusiastic in extolling thesocial changes that are (or are wished to be) coming aboutas a consequence of the adoption of a new communicationmedium by a small percentage of Iranians. 5 Furthermore,they miss the complex patterns of adaptation, appropria-tion, and emergence that characterize the online sociocul-tural practices of bloggers.That the vulgarity debate presents, for ethnographicand anthropological study, a range of interesting and com-plex social interactions, linguistic practices, and power dy-namics should become evident in the following sections.A generative construct I like to employ in analyzing thisdebate is that of “deep play,” elaborated by Clifford Geertz(1973) in his famous essay on the Balinese cockfight andpicked up by Michael M. J. Fischer (2003) in his ambitiousand wide-ranging call for renewing the ethnographic andanthropological voice in the 21st century. According to Fis-cher, deep play  “refers to cultural sites where multiple levelsof structure, explanation, and meaning intersect and con-dense, including the cultural phantasmagoria that groundand structure the terrain on which reason, will, and lan-guage operate but cannot contain” (2003:31). As I reviewthe details and implications of the vulgarity debate in theconclusion, I will describe specifically the multiple levels of “structure, explanation, and meaning” that constituted thevulgarity debate as a site of deep play.A final point needs to be made here about the concep-tualization of my object of study. My research has focusedexclusively on linguistic and cultural practices in an onlinecontext as well as cultural, metalinguistic, and metaprag-matic articulations and contestations of these practices—themselves produced and disseminated online. This shouldnotimplythateitherthepracticesthemselvesorthediscus-sions about them are separated from the offline contexts inwhich each blogging subject lives and acts. Unfortunately,an in-depth study of all of these offline contexts would befar beyond the scope of my work: The bloggers I have en-countered in my study are as diverse, and their contexts as  654 American Anthropologist • Vol. 106, No. 4 • December 2004 different, as high school and university students, journal-ists, literary critics, web designers, academics, and women’srights activists; living in Tehran, Toronto, Berlin, Boston,London, Prague, and Paris—along with numerous otheranonymous and half-anonymous bloggers and blog read-ers scattered around the world. Despite this diversity, thereare several important objects of inquiry that move acrossthemultiplecontextsandbridgetheonline–offlineconcep-tual divide. These range from the Persian-language speechgenres that compose the linguistic repertoires of Iraniansto culturally constituted and politically charged tastes andsensitivities about “vulgarity” and ideological and politicalconflicts inside Iran that become matters of debate amongIranians from all corners of the world by virtue of the In-ternet’s capability to bridge geographical distance. To in-terrogate and map out these issues in analyzing the vul-garity debate, I have attempted to apply and weave to-gether two of the modes of multisited ethnographic con-struction proposed by George Marcus (1995): namely, “fol-lowing the metaphor” (especially as related to the use of the term vulgarity, its social significances, and its groundingwithinbroaderculturalandpoliticalconfigurationsinIran)and “following the conflict” (consisting for the most partof tracking multiple strands of tension and debate, bothwithin and outside the blogging community, over contro-versial linguistic and cultural practices). Each method callsforasortof“mobility”inethnographyacrossdifferentsitesand connects the debate to multiple webs of signification,both online and off. BLOGGING AS A SPEECH GENRE Bakhtin (1986) asserts that every utterance takes shape in adefinite “speech genre”; that is, every utterance has “defi-nite and relatively stable typical forms of construction of thewhole ” (1986:78). Speech genres can be defined by theirouter orientation to the context of production and recep-tion and by their inner, thematic orientation. 6 I show in this section that certain structural featuresof blogs, in addition to certain sociocultural practices inthe Persian-language blogging community, have been con-tributing to the formation of explicit orientations for blog-gingthatmaywarrantitsclassificationasadistinctgenreof speech. These are emergent orientations that arise from di-alogue and fusion between other online and offline speechgenres but that are also tied to the architecture of blogsas a medium of communication embedded within a larger“ecology” of media on the Internet (Erickson 2000; Herringet al. 2004). Their emergent character also means they arenot fixed and are indeed continually contested by differentgroups of bloggers with different agendas, experiences, andmasteries over preexisting genres of speech.Each individual comes to a blog with a stock of speechgenres at her disposal. These include “primary” genres thatare mostly oral and simple, and “secondary” genres that aremore complex and are usually written (Bakhtin 1986:62).The primary genres that are present in one form or anotheron Persian-language blogs include an array of greeting andcourtesy routines, small talk, casual political conversation(as in a taxicab), jokes, gossip, and bathroom graffiti amongother genres. Common secondary genres include vari-ous journalistic forms, literary genres (including differentkinds of poetry and prose), scholarly writing, travelogues,personal diaries, radio broadcasting, and religious lamen-tation and devotionals. Many bloggers and visitors arealso familiar with various online speech genres—includinge-mail, instant messaging, chat-room conversation, andasynchronous newsgroup discussion.Thematically—that is, as far as an inner orientation isconcerned—each of these speech genres may potentially bereproduced in a blog entry or visitor’s comment. However,the genres’ outer orientations, which are specific to theircontextsofproductionandreception,cannotbeaseasilyre-produced.Greetingandcourtesyroutines,forexample,losethe immediacy and temporal structure of oral face-to-faceconversation and begin to resemble static letters or e-mailswhen they are carried over to a blogging context. I havebegun to think that the frequent use of ellipses in manyPersian-language blog entries and comments is part of anattempt to compensate for this uprooting of the genre fromits oral context, by simulating gaps in oral speech that workas cues for turn-switching, as when a speaker remains silentwhen it is his interlocutor’s turn to speak. The followingvisitor’s comment is a particularly good example of the useof ellipses: Salaam alpar-e geraami . . . moddatist ke be dalaayeliveblaag-neveshtan raa motevaqqef karde’am, va bejaay-e aan be jam’aavari-e linkhaayi bedard-bokhor kar-dam taa doostaani ke sar mizanand, hadde aqal shaayadbahre-i borde baashand . . . khob . . . khaahesh mikonamlotf karde va sari be veblaag-e man bezanid . . . vabebinid . . . baa arz-e tashakkor . . . shaad-o salaamatbaashid . . . montazeram.[Hello dear Alpar . . . it’s been a while now that I’vestopped blogging and have started collecting useful linksinstead so that when people visit, they will at least takeaway something useful . . . well . . . please pay a visit to myblog . . . and see for yourself  . . . thank you . . . may you behappy and healthy . . . I’ll be waiting]. [Doorandish 2004] In a similar manner, devotional blog entries that resemblethe lamentations chanted in mourning ceremonies for theShi’a Imams lose much of the emotional content carriedby aural and visual cues in the oral performances. Often,bloggers who produce such texts on their blogs use emoti-cons, borrowed from instant messaging services like YahooMessenger to express such emotions, as in the excerpt inFigure 2 written by a blogger during the mourning monthof Muharram (also notice the use of ellipses). Even whencomplex secondary speech genres like journalistic writingareinvolved,ablogentrymayadoptamuchmoreinformaland personal tone than what is customary in a newspaper,in part because of a perceived immediacy and intimacy intherelationshipbetweenthebloggerandhisorhervisitors.  Doostdar • “The Vulgar Spirit of Blogging” 655 FIGURE 2. ThisisanexcerptfromablogentrymourningforImamHusayn ibn-e Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, who diedin a battle in Karbala in the late seventh century. Shemr is thename of his murderer: “How nice if when one is dying, one’s headis on his son’s lap—But I would die for Husayn (peace be uponhim)—When he opened his eyes in the pit, he found that his headwas on Shemr’s lap [weeping emoticons from Yahoo Messenger]—My friends, in Karbala, in the master’s [Imam Husayn’s] shrine, Isaw—With what respect and humility the pilgrims would enter—They would respectfully turn their shoes in to the shoe-keeperand enter the shrine barefooted—But the depraved Shemr sat onHusayn’s chest with his boots on. [weeping emoticons from YahooMessenger]” ThefollowingexcerptisfromAliPirhoseinloo’sblog,ajour-nalist living in Tehran (the bold text is a hyperlink): Vaay vaay vaay vaay. Ajab eftezaah-e bozorgi. Man av-valin nafaram ke khabaresh ro midam. Saayt-e isnaa hakshode. Tavassot-e yek haker-e kolaah-sefid. Havij![Wow wow wow wow. What a big mess. I’m the firstperson reporting this. ISNA’s [the Iranian Student NewsAgency] website has been hacked. By a white-hat hackernamed Havij!] [Pirhoseinloo 2004] WhatIamtryingtoshowwiththeseexamplesisthatspeechgenres are transformed by varying degrees when bloggersincorporate them into their writing, even though themati-callytheymayremainintact.Itisthebloggerwhocreativelybrings various genres into a heterogeneous mix and thustransforms them, in line with pragmatic considerations re-lated to his or her context of speech. These pragmatic con-siderationsarethemselvesconstrainedbythestructuralfea-turesofblogsandthenatureofinteractionsamongbloggersand between bloggers and visitors. It is in these structuresand interactions that I believe the contours of an outer ori-entation for blogging, as a distinct speech genre, may befound.I posit three constitutive elements for an emergentouter orientation of Persian-language blogging: First, andperhapsforemost,isablogentry’sdialogicrelationshipwithother texts on the Internet, particularly with other blog en-tries both on the author’s blog and on blogs belonging tootherpeople.Asbloggerswritetheirentries,theyoftenreferexplicitly to things that they themselves or other bloggershave said. A reference is most likely (but not always) in theform of one or more hyperlinks in the body of the entrythat can transport the reader to the actual entry being re-ferred to with a click of the mouse. The following excerptfrom a blog entry by Reza Shokrollahi, which initiated thevulgarity debate, includes two such hyperlinks: Shirin-e ebaadi chand rooz-e pish sokhani goft dar-bareye hoqooq-e bashar va eslaam. Hossein-e der-akhshan yaaddaashti va pas-yaaddaashti nevesht-omodda’iyane . . . az qor’aan aaye aavard ke eslaam baahoqooq-e bashar motenaaqez ast.[Shirin Ebadi said something several days ago about hu-man rights and Islam. Hossein Derakhshan wrote a note and a post-note and pretentiously . . . cited verses fromthe Qur’an and argued that Islam and human rights arecontradictory]. [Shokrollahi 2003a] The bold items in the excerpt link to Derakhshan’s blogentries, which Shokrollahi is referring to and commentingon in the same sentence. 7 The entire text uses these twoblog entries as an excuse to make its point about linguisticand cultural depravity in the Persian blogosphere.While a blog entry often responds to something thathas already been said on another blog or elsewhere, it mustnecessarily take into account the possible responses that itwill incite, as well. These responses may appear on anotherblog, which may, in turn, link back to the first entry by wayofhyperlinks.Theymayalsoappearontheoriginalblogen-try, in a special section designated for visitors’ comments.Bloggers usually take the comments and responses they re-ceive very seriously. Often, bloggers will add a postscriptto an entry they have written to respond to some of thecomments they have received (and this, in turn, may incitemore responses), or they may enter the comments sectionthemselves and write a response to some of the commentsthere. Bloggers may also decide not to allow comments fora particular entry, to disallow commenting after several re-sponses have been posted, or to delete or edit commentsthat they find irrelevant, obscene, or hateful. In all thesecases, bloggers take an active, dialogic stance toward the re-sponses of their readers—both the comments already writ-ten and those they anticipate.Second, an outer orientation of the blog is also shapedbyitstemporalstructure.Blogentriesareorganizedchrono-logically, with the most recent entries appearing at the topof the page, so that the newest text is always what a visitorsees first. Older entries appear below the more recent ones,and the visitor will have to “scroll down” to see them. Be-yond the latest couple of blog entries, the rest of a blogger’swritings can only be accessed through the archives or byrunning a search, unless the blogger refers to them explic-itly in a new entry or elsewhere on the page.The chronological ordering of blog entries means thatany text, no matter how important, well written, or popu-lar, will eventually shift down to the bottom of the screenand out of sight in the archives as newer texts are com-posed and posted. When an entry is a few days old, visi-tors are usually more reluctant to comment, as the bloggerhas already probably moved on to something else (if not,it is probably a sign of the blog’s stagnation, which is aneven stronger disincentive to comment). One consequence
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